Engineers work on a small scout rover for the ESA ExoMars mission at an Airbus test centre designed to mimic the surface of the red planet. Photo: RICHARD GRAY/ALAMY

Britain in space: Is the country ready for a giant leap?

The triumphs of 20th century space exploration were colossal. Will Britain play a role in the triumphs of the 21st?
June 18, 2018

Ask someone about space-flight and perhaps they’ll tell you about the heroism of Yuri Gagarin, who in 1961 became the first human ever to leave the Earth’s atmosphere, or about the moon landing—that “giant leap”—taken by the United States in 1969. The triumphs of 20th century space exploration were colossal. They expanded humanity’s sense of what was possible. But what might be coming in the 21st? And what might Britain’s contribution be?

Surprisingly substantial, it turns out—the UK has a burgeoning space industry, employing tens of thousands of people, with a history going back over half a century. When Tim Peake launched into orbit in 2015, he may have been only the second astronaut to fly under the Union Jack (the first was Helen Sharman, in 1991). But Britain’s space programme started in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the victorious powers competed to get their hands on German technological know-how, especially jet and rocket propulsion systems.

The science behind the V2 rockets, which were fired on London from 1944 on, was of particular interest. These 12-ton monsters with their one-ton warheads were terrifying not only for their range—over 250km—but also their destructive power.

They were the first man-made objects to travel into space. When hostilities ceased, Britain swept up as much information about the V2 as it could, keen to learn how such enormous thrust was generated. In an operation known as “Backfire,” British technical staff re-assembled several of the rockets which were test-fired at Cuxhaven, in Saxony. One of them reached a maximum altitude of just over 40 miles. In that moment, Britain effectively conducted the world’s first peacetime spaceflight.

But when it came to space travel, the V2 was a dead-end for British ambitions. The official UK space programme began in 1952 and culminated in 1962 with the launch of the British Ariel 1 satellite, a joint venture with the US. Once in orbit, Ariel carried out a number of onboard experiments, to examine the interaction of the Sun’s rays with the ionosphere, the region from 40-600 miles above the Earth’s surface, the same zone that was crossed by the trajectory of the V2. Ariel’s success meant that Britain became only the third nation to have successfully launched a working probe, after the USSR and US.

But the fascination with rocketry persisted and throughout the 1960s and 1970s Britain pushed to develop its own launch system. But it came to naught. The economies of the Soviets and the US were able to pour in the vast resources needed to build rocket boosters and shuttles. The UK couldn’t keep up.

And so we had to become more niche—and the result is a large, buoyant and rather energised industry in the UK that employs around 38,000 people, with a turnover of £14bn. The person charged with guiding this industry into the future is Graham Turnock, the CEO of the UK Space Agency (UKSA), the government body created in 2010 to oversee every aspect of Britain’s space efforts.

“When Tim Peake launched into orbit he was the second UK astronaut—but our space programme goes back to the 1940s”

“Since 2010, our ambition has been to grow our share of global space activity to 10 per cent,” Turnock told me. “That would be a trebling of the size of the sector.”

But there is a big difference between the huge, state-backed space programmes of the 20th century and Britain’s current plans. Rather than attempting yet more giant leaps for mankind, the aim is more clearly defined—and somewhat more prosaic. Now, says Turnock, when it comes to the space industry, his priority is “kick-starting a commercial sector.” “We are trying to facilitate private launch in the UK.”

The aim, then, is to make it easier for independent space companies—such as SpaceX and Virgin—to develop their own launch capabilities in Britain. That way, the burden of all that heavy investment—of the sort that Britain couldn’t stump up in the last century—falls back on the entrepreneurs. This time, it is the private sector that will take us into space.

If Britain can get it right, the economic benefits could be substantial. Space engineering and the companies that it attracts bring precisely the kind of high-end jobs the government is desperate to encourage.

Almost three quarters of space industry employees have a degree, the highest proportion of any sector. According to government figures, a skilled employee in the space sector will generate £140,000 of value, almost three times as productive as the UK average. Not only that, space industries bring strong potential trade benefits—36.4 per cent of the sector’s turnover in the UK is generated by exports. The net result is an impressive rate of growth: the industry tripled in value between 2000 and 2015.

So what exactly do they make? The biggest money-spinner is broadcast satellite technology, which is responsible for nearly £8bn in revenues— that’s over 50 per cent of the money generated by UK space businesses. After that comes communications satellites—20 per cent of revenues—and position, navigation and timing satellites, 12 per cent. Other smaller revenue streams come from meteorological work, and defence and military applications.

In comparison to other sectors, it’s still small-scale. But the government is interested in space because of its colossal potential. It showed that commitment in its 2017 Industrial Strategy Paper, where it set aside £50m for Britain’s space launch businesses. “Fifty million is a very sizeable budget in terms of what we are trying to achieve here,” said Turnock.

“As an agency we have a budget of £370m which is a very substantial amount,” he said. “We would like more and we would like to make the case… but that’s a sizeable budget.”

Turnock is a physicist by training, and he did his PhD based on work he carried out at Cern, the European high-energy particle research laboratory under the French-Swiss border. He took the top job at the UKSA at a moment when Britain’s future industrial and economic capabilities are in a state of flux. If Britain does leave the EU, then new industries and capabilities will become all the more significant as the economy rebalances away from the old continental trade relationships towards newer, more adaptable industries.

It is timely then that the Space Industries Bill gained royal assent from Parliament in March, legislation that was overseen by Sam Gyimah, the Minister of State for Science and Innovation. The bill writes into law all the regulations needed to oversee a new array of space work, including rules governing the launch of space vehicles from UK soil.

Most remarkably, perhaps, it creates the ability for government to issue a new kind of licence—one that allows the holder to operate a spaceport on British soil. It’s an extraordinary thought, but there are seven proposed sites for British spaceports. One of these is in Scotland and another is in the southwest of England, at Newquay in Cornwall.

“It’s absolutely realistic,” Turnock says of the proposed site in Cornwall. The plan is to carry a spacecraft on the back of a plane and launch it from the air. The Newquay site is well-suited for this sort of “horizontal” launch because the old surfing town sits on the edge of a huge, open expanse of Atlantic Ocean. When trying for space, it’s good to make sure there’s nothing beneath you in case you don’t quite make it.

The spaceport proposed in Scotland would be near Lossiemouth, where there is already a RAF base. “Scotland plays much more naturally to vertical [launch],” says Turnock, meaning rockets launched directly into space from the ground. One of the attractions of this, he explained, is that we “are well placed in the UK for polar launch.” Putting satellites into polar orbit, where they cross the north and south poles, has many advantages. A satellite on this trajectory will cross a different part of the Earth with each round of the planet it makes, making polar orbit especially good for observation and reconnaissance satellites.

“A lot of Europe would struggle to do polar orbital launch,” said Turnock, “because of the presence of populated areas to the north and south.”

“Polar launch is very badly served by launch capabilities round the world,” he said, “which are much more geared towards heavy launch: historically mannedlaunch. So if you want to get satellites up into orbit there’s a big problem launching the kind of satellite that people want to launch into the right kind of orbit.”

“Typically they have to hitch lifts on much bigger launches that aren’t necessarily going into the orbit they want, which then costs a lot more in terms of propellant and time in terms of getting in to the orbit they want.”

This sort of launch capability proposed in Britain would be a hugely-valuable asset for both Britain and the continent. And if it’s built, then a host of new companies will be attracted to the site.

“There are about 500 businesses now in the UK that weren’t there five years ago—in another five years, I’d expect that number will have doubled.” A functioning spaceport would drive that figure upwards very sharply.

But even if the intention is to encourage the involvement of the private sector, there is inevitably some crossover with interested government departments, especially in the areas of security and defence.

“There is a lot of coming together of the civil and military interest in space,” Turnock told me, although he stressed that the main focus would always be on civil matters. “In things like space situational awareness, both the military and civil side need to understand what’s up there—both live objects and dead objects—so we can operate in space safely without risk of collision or creating more debris. That’s an area where we are working closely with the Ministry of Defence.”

The UKSA has also invested several million pounds in Goonhilly, the deep space communications station in Cornwall’s Lizard peninsula. This upgrade will make the station’s two antennae compatible with Nasa-operated craft, as well as a range of commercial satellite systems. Once the upgrade is complete Britain will have, for the first time, the ability to communicate with objects in deep space.

There’s no doubt this amounts to a substantial and impressive new capability—but what about Brexit? Pushing ahead with a relatively new sector of this sort is all very well, but if Britain is looking to re-draw its trade relations with Europe and the rest of the world, the implications cannot be avoided by the UK’s space industries. That’s all the more so for a sector that relies heavily on foreign supply chains and exports.

But, as Turnock explains, the European Space Agency (ESA)  “is a completely separate institution from the EU.” Membership of the former has no bearing on co-operation with the latter.

“We are a very important part of the ESA exploration programme and our contribution to that programme is growing,” Turnock told me. “We upped our contribution to that at the last ESA funding round at Lucerne in 2016 and that enabled Tim Peake to do his ground-breaking six months in the International Space Station.”

It is a diplomatic response—but the implications for Britain’s space industry of Brexit received a sharp corrective recently when an argument broke out over Britain’s participation in the Galileo programme. This is a pan-European plan to create a high-precision equivalent of the US military’s global positioning system through a €10bn network of satellites.

“There’s no doubt it’s a substantial new capability—but what about Brexit? The implications can’t be avoided”

But Britain’s involvement became a point of contention when EU authorities said that the UK could be barred from participating in the most sensitive parts of the programme. This suggestion was met with fury in Whitehall, especially as the encrypted system used by Galileo was developed in Britain. The UK also contributed 12 per cent of the development budget.

Despite the political scrapping, Britain remains deeply embedded in European space projects—and those projects are highly ambitious. They include the ExoMars programme, run by the ESA, which in 2020 will launch a probe to look for life on the red planet.

“There is no sense in which we are backing out of the ESA. Our prospects of being part of that future exploration programme are just as bright as they were before the referendum. It is a very exciting programme, with the potential beyond ExoMars of a sample return from Mars—the holy grail—in 2030 or the late 2020s depending on planning.”

And when it comes to the immediate future of the UK space sector, “Brexit is an opportunity,” said Turnock. “We need to be competitive on the world stage because to get that 10 per cent share of the global space market, we need to go beyond meeting UK domestic demand. We need to be exporting round the world.”

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